HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – It would have happened eventually.
Had Virginia head coach Dom Starsia not guided his Cavaliers to a win against Cornell on Saturday in their NCAA quarterfinal game at James Shuart Stadium, he certainly would have become the all-time coaching wins leader in Division I history at some point in the 2012 season.
Like any coach worth his salt, however, Starsia cares much more about his team’s success than where his name resides on any all-time wins list. So it was much more satisfying to have his 327th win as a Division I head coach come in a game that put his Cavaliers in next weekend’s NCAA Championship at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
“I’ll tell you one thought that occurred to me,” Starsia said after his team scored a 13-9 victory against the Big Red. “‘We’re going to talk about this for 10 months before we break this record’ if we hadn’t won this game. I thought about that earlier today. I thought, ‘We’re going to be talking about this all winter.’ To have it be at this moment, in this game, against that opponent, in this location, in the NCAA quarterfinals, there really couldn’t have been a better setting for all this.”
To be sure, a win on Saturday was anything but a certainty. Cornell came in as the No. 2 seed in the 16-team tournament, fresh off of a 12-5 win over Hartford in the first round. Virginia was seeded seventh, and trailed for most of last week’s first-round game against Bucknell, finally forcing overtime with two goals in 46 seconds late in the game and winning it on Matt White’s second goal of the day with 2:33 left in overtime. Even though the Cavaliers had defeated the Big Red on March 4 in the Face-Off Classic in Baltimore, it was hardly a stretch to call Virginia an underdog.
However, the Cavaliers made the most of their new lease on life, shrugging off an early 4-1 deficit against the Big Red with a run of nine unanswered goals and holding Cornell scoreless for more than 23 minutes.
“One thing we learned is to never give up,” said attackman Chris Bocklet, who scored three goals in Saturday’s win. “We learned a lot from that game, we came out here ready to play and we were excited about it. We knew what the stakes were.”
The win put Starsia ahead of former Army head coach Jack Emmer for most all-time wins by a coach at a Division I school, and more importantly, it puts him within two wins of his fourth NCAA Championship as Virginia’s head coach.
“To be going back to the national semifinals and to have broken this record and to have it be against a team like Cornell is just remarkable,” Starsia said.
The fact that the game took place less than 10 minutes from Starsia’s hometown of Valley Stream didn’t exactly hurt, either, as the 29-year veteran counted friends and family among the crowd of 13,447 in attendance at the site of his second game as a head coach (in 1983 at his alma mater, Brown).
“My mother’s sister is here,” Starsia said. “It’s the second lacrosse game she’s ever seen. I don’t think about it much in terms of coming back here until I get to the bridges: when you get to the Throgs Neck, the traffic is backed up, there’s construction at 11:30 on Thursday night. You’re like, ‘Hey, I’m home,’ sitting in traffic on the Cross-Bronx. I grew up 10 minutes from here…family’s here and stuff. There’s probably just too much to take in.”
That could also be seen as a commentary on the playoff atmosphere on Long Island, as one of lacrosse’s traditional hotbeds turned out in full force, despite that host Hofstra had been eliminated from the tournament last weekend. As a Long Island native and a veteran of the sport, the atmosphere at Shuart was something special for Starsia to experience, particularly on the day of his historic win.
“There have been some things recently in our sport in which the growth of the game, I wouldn’t describe it as a good thing on every level,” Starsia said, “coaches losing jobs and stuff, but when you see this, kids hanging over the locker room railings, and the crowd, an environment like this, it’s clear that our game does continue to grow.”
It’s also special for the Virginia seniors, who wouldn’t have been part of Starsia’s record-breaking win had it come next February. As longstick midfielder Bray Malphrus noted, Starsia never mentioned the record, but no one needed to tell him and his classmates the significance of being part of it.
“It’s an honor,” Malphrus said, “and I’m grateful that I was part of it. This is a tribute to Coach Starsia. He spoke nothing of it the past few weeks. We figured out through the media that he was about to break the record, but no one on the coaching staff made mention of it. I think that’s a tribute to who he is. He was very modest about it, and never brought it up once.”
Now, with their coach’s 327th win in the books, Malphrus and his teammates can continue on in pursuit of their school’s fifth NCAA Championship.